“It took a riot” was the title of a report that Michael Heseltine sent to Margaret Thatcher, graphically spelling out the social problems in Liverpool which were the underlying cause of the 1981 riots.
“It took an inferno” might be a suitable title for the official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster. I had always assumed the investigation would look into the social housing policy of successive governments since 1980, since when the proportion of people living in social housing has dropped from 31 per cent to 17 per cent. But I was wrong.
What happened at Grenfell goes way beyond whether building and fire safety regulations were adequate and properly enforced. It was not a freak tragedy, but a preventable one. It was the culmination of 40 years which saw council housing limited to those at the bottom of the pile; building by local authorities (which provided almost 50 per cent of new homes in 1970) replaced by housing associations (which now provide only 20 per cent) and the contracting out of the management and renovation of much council housing by town halls, which have borne the brunt of austerity.
However, the inquiry chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge, will not address such issues even though a majority of the 550 representations to him said it should have as broad a remit as possible. More than 20 per cent of respondents said it should cover the role of central government and government policies, particularly on deregulation. Some 18 per cent said it should include housing policy, both nationally and locally.
In the terms of reference he proposed to Theresa May, Moore-Bick argued that including such matters would unduly delay his findings, and that “the inclusion of such broad questions within the scope of the inquiry would raise questions of a social, economic and political nature which in my view are not suitable for a judge-led inquiry”. Of course they are political. But if the underlying causes of the disaster are to be properly understood, how on earth can these matters be ignored?
His recommendations, accepted by the Prime Minister, mean the inquiry will look into “the response of central and local government in the days immediately following the fire” – but, ludicrously, not the Government's actions before it.
To be fair, Moore-Bick did suggest to May that the broader issues be considered in a parallel process. In her reply, she acknowledged that on social housing “there are a number of concerns, which have gone unheard for too long”. But her response has been totally inadequate so far. She has asked Alok Sharma, the housing minister, to meet tenants from Grenfell and across the country “to identify any common concerns that must inform any national approach”.
I am sure Sharma will perform this task with energy and sincerity; he spoke movingly in the Commons about the harrowing experiences of Grenfell victims and survivors. But the housing minister cannot be the person who reviews the policies of his Conservative and Labour predecessors. It looks like the political class investigating and protecting itself.
Where is the inquiry that goes back to 1980, and Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy? This woefully failed to reinvest in new public housing the proceeds of giving away almost two million council homes in England at a discount of up to 50 per cent. Today, many of the grandchildren of tenants who bought their homes have little prospect of getting a council home or a foot on the property ladder. Perhaps this is too close to home for the Tories, and a prime minister who has promised to tackle failing markets, “burning injustice” and champion the working classes. As Jeremy Corbyn has told May in a letter: “The fear is that the priority is to avoid criticism of your party’s policy failures rather than secure justice for Grenfell survivors, along with the safety of the many other people who live in social housing in this country.”
At the nine general elections I have covered, someone has always predicted that housing would emerge as a major issue, but it never has – even after years of building only half the new homes we need. Perhaps it would have been different this year if Grenfell had happened just before the election rather than just afterwards.
May does not seem to have learned from her disastrous visit to the scene of the disaster. She should announce a genuinely independent inquiry into social housing policy since 1980, in parallel to the Grenfell investigation.
Without that, the Grenfell residents will have every reason to feel betrayed again, and an opportunity to regain their trust will be squandered.